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Can a embryo or fetus feel pain?

Introduction

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Can an embryo feel pain?

The answer is a definite no. The vast majority of pregnancy terminations -- whether due to miscarriages, elective abortions, ectopic pregnancies, etc. occur before the embryo becomes a fetus at or near the end of the first trimester. All of the mechanisms needed for an embryo to feel pain are not present.

Many pro-life groups emphasize that the embryo develops pain sensors about seven weeks after conception. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, they often do not explain the full picture. Many people without medical training naturally assume that the presence of these sensors will enable the embryo to feel pain. However, sensing of pain requires a complete system, including:

bullet Pain sensors to sense the pain,
bullet Nerve pathways to convey pain signals from the sensors, up the spine, and into the brain, and
bullet The existence of higher brain functions to convert those signals into feelings of pain.

Since the full system is not present until after the embryo becomes a fetus, it can be safely concluded that human embryos cannot feel pain.

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Can a fetus feel pain?

The short answer is maybe. At an advanced stage of pregnancy, a fetus is probably capable of capable of feeling pain. There appears to be no consensus among experts about whether this happens and at what point in the pregnancy the ability to sense pain starts:

bullet Many physicians and researchers of fetal development believe that synaptic connections within the fetus' brain are necessary to perceive pain. These are not formed until the third trimester, when fewer than 1% of all pregnancy terminations are done, when miscarriages are very rare and when ectopic pregnancies had long since been treated. For example, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, CA wrote that babies born before 30 weeks’ gestation lack "functional pain perception." They suggested that this is one indicator that "fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester." 1
bullet Some mental and medical professionals suggest that a fetus cannot feel pain, no matter how far developed. One is Stuart Derbyshire, a psychologist at the University of Birmingham, UK, who is an expert specializing in how the brain feels pain. He wrote that there is "good evidence that fetuses cannot experience pain." According to World Science, he argues that the complex medical processes necessary for the experience of pain cannot begin until the jolt of life outside the womb kick starts them. Thus, a fetus -- no matter how advanced in development -- cannot sense pain. He believes that the presence of pain in newborns is not a sign that a fetus at the same gestational age can feel pain. World Science comments:

"The brain circuitry for processing pain seems to be complete by 26 weeks' gestation, he wrote. But true pain requires not only development of the brain but also development of the mind to accommodate the subjectivity of pain."

"This mental development occurs only outside the womb, he added, through the baby’s actions and interactions with caregivers. The chemical environment in the uterus encourages sleep and suppresses higher-level brain activity necessary for pain perception, wrote Derbyshire, who uses brain scans frequently in his research." 2

bullet Others, mostly pro-life advocates, believe -- or at least imply -- that a fetus as early as 7 weeks after conception can feel pain. Thus, they believe that a fetus can feel pain part way through the first trimester, when most abortions are actually performed

Some of the experts' opinions may be so heavily biased by their pro-life/pro-choice stance that they appear incapable of making objective observations.

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Why pain is so important:

Many women seriously consider this factor when they are deciding whether or not to have an abortion. They are reluctant to submit to an operation that would be painful to the fetus. Women deserve to have precise information on which to base their decision. Unfortunately, emotional factors seem to intrude in this, as in all other matters related to abortion. Information is very easy to find. But it is highly contradictory and its accuracy is difficult to evaluate.

A second consideration is that, in rare cases, administering anesthesia to the fetus could cause bleeding, breathing problems and other complications, including death -- for the woman." 3,4 So, administering anesthesia to the fetus should be avoided if it cannot sense pain.  

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More about pain:

Pain in an adult, child, newborn or late-term fetus originates as an electrical signal in some of the body's pain receptors. This signal is sent via nerve pathways to the spinal column, then to the thalamus - an egg-shaped structure within the brain. Finally the signal is transferred to the cerebral cortex where it is sensed as pain. In a fetus, the pain receptors develop around 7 weeks after conception; the spino-thalamic system at about 13 weeks. However, the connections to the cortex are established only after about 26 weeks into pregnancy -- well into the third trimester.

bullet Some pro-life advocates believe that pain can be felt by the fetus when these systems are only partly formed.
bullet Most physicians, medical researchers, and pro-choice advocates believe that the complete system has to be "wired up" before the fetus can feel pain - i.e. sometime after about 26 weeks into pregnancy. As noted above, some believe that a fetus cannot feel pain until after birth, no matter how far the pregnancy has developed.

The first direct scientific study of pain in premature babies involved 18 newborn preemies aged 25 to 45 weeks after conception. According to World Science:

"Brain scans taken while babies were having blood tests registered a surge of blood and oxygen in sensory areas in babies’ brains, according to the researchers, showing that the pain was processed in higher levels of the brain."

"A key brain area involved, called the somatosensory cortex, helps process sensations from the body surface and is also linked to pain sensation in adults, according to the researchers....

" 'Repeated painful procedures are a significant stressor and lead to increased sensitivity to other non-painful procedures,' said Maria Fitzgerald of University College. The researchers said the study points up the need for better pain-control methods for infants.

They insisted, though, that the study says nothing about pain in unborn children." 5,6

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References:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Article, Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), 2005-AUG-24/31.
  2. Stuart Derbyshire, Article, British Medical Journal, 2006-APR-15.
  3. Luke Shockman, "Abortion debate foes tap into technology to serve their beliefs. Advances like ultrasound used by both," Toledo Blade, 2005-OCT-03, at: http://toledoblade.com/
  4. "JAMA Editor Defends Publishing Fetal Pain Review Despite Criticism for Not Disclosing Authors' Abortion-Related Work," Medical News Today, 2005-AUG-29, at: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/
  5. Article, Journal of Neuroscience, 2006-APR-05.
  6. "Premature babies feel pain -- but fetuses don't, researchers claim," World Science, 2005-APR-14, at: http://www.world-science.net/

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Home page > "Hot" topics > Abortion > Basic facts > Fetal pain > here

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Copyright © 1999 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2010-MAY-15
Author: B.A. Robinson

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